The Journey of an Undrafted Free Agent

For Dallas Cowboy Keith Smith, the waiting finally paid off


Every year during the National Football League off-season, 32 teams select the top collegiate athletes during the highly publicized NFL draft. For these lucky individuals, being drafted is a dream come true; however, this isn’t the case for all NFL athletes. For the major league hopefuls who do not hear their name called on draft day, they enter the league as undrafted free agents with a chip on their shoulder.

During his four years at San Jose State University (Western Athletic Conference), Keith Smith was awarded WAC freshman of the year in 2010, first-team All-WAC in 2012, first-team All-MWC in 2013, and was the nation’s leading tackler in Division I FBS. Coming out of college, Smith had a legitimate shot at being drafted into the NFL, yet the Dallas Cowboys didn’t contact him till the seventh and final round of the draft.

Keith Smith, San Jose State Spartans

San Jose State isn’t a college football powerhouse, and to most college football viewers, it is looked at as a “non-football” school. Even after leading the nation in tackles, Smith was not invited to the annual NFL combine or the Senior Bowl. These types of events are where most collegiate athletes put their abilities on display for the NFL scouts, and this can propel these players into the draft.

“It kind of hurt,” Smith said. “I mean after the season that I had, leading the nation in tackles, and making all-conference all fours years, and all the accolades. Whatever I did in college, it felt like no one cared like none of that really mattered.”

When it came to draft day, Smith and his family watched the three day process unfold in front of their anxious eyes and watched until the final name was called—which happened to be Lonnie Ballentine, defensive back from Memphis.

Jason David, who played five seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts and won a Super Bowl with the Colts in 2006, told Smith to control what he could control, and focus on what he could do to get better.

Taking David’s advice, Smith immediately signed with the Dallas Cowboys at the conclusion of the draft simply because they were the first to call him, and he had a gut feeling about them.

“It felt amazing man, once I was signed I thought this is all I could ask for… just an opportunity,” Smith said.

Smith had gone from the dominant presence on his team at San Jose State to now being just another wide eyed rookie at Dallas Cowboys training camp. He would face an uphill battle against not only his fellow rookies drafted and undrafted alike, but also the veterans on the team fighting for a prized spot on the 53 player roster. To make the roster, football would have to continue to be Smith’s top priority as it had been his entire life.

According to Smith’s mother, Juli, her son has been obsessed with football since he could talk.

Mom Juli still has a notebook that he used in the first grade. On one of the pages, the classic question was asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Keith wrote, “Play in the NFL.” Juli said that mama or dada were not Keith’s first words, but rather the word “football.” She remembered one Halloween when Keith was just 18 months old and his family was trick or treating. They stopped at a house that happened to have a football game on the television. After seeing the TV screen he blurted out “Football!” As soon as he could he began playing football in the fourth grade and immediately developed a love for offense. He played running back just like one of his favorite players, Dallas Cowboy legend, Emmit Smith, but he loved the G.O.A.T (Greatest of all time) Jerry Rice, wide receiver for the 49ers. Smith was a big 49er fan until his idol Jerry Rice relocated to Oakland and became a Raider.

While in the seventh grade, Jason David entered his life because Smith’s sister and David started dating. David was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL draft, and immediately became a role model to Smith because he represented what could result from hard work.

“He’s probably been the biggest influence and role model in my life. As far as football, he defeated all the odds and still made it,” Smith said.

By the end of his freshman year of football, Smith made the decision to commit to becoming an NFL player.

“I told myself I’m not going to be average,” Smith said.

Smith wasn’t always a bulked up linebacker. “I was a little fat kid but I had that dog in me and that fire to play this game,” he said.

He played varsity football at Charter Oak High School in Covina, Calif. and moved from offense to defense and played his more instinctive and natural position as linebacker. While at Charter Oak, Smith led his team to back-to-back CIF championships, and regularly dominated the opposing offenses under the Friday night lights. Yet Smith still did not receive the national recognition from the division I “football schools.” Most players drafted in the NFL draft are from big name schools like Louisiana State University with nine players drafted from their 2013–14 team, and Notre Dame and Alabama who each had eight players drafted from their team.

San Jose State University only had two players drafted from their 2013–14 team, and Smith, their most dominant defensive player was not one of them. Before committing to San Jose State, Smith knew the “non-football” label could hurt his chances to make it into the NFL, but all he needed was an opportunity to show his talents. San Jose State was coming off a terrible season in 2009 with a record of 2–9. As a senior in high school, Smith remembered watching the San Jose State Spartans lose one of those games 62–7 to Nevada. “I thought, I will never go there; the stands were empty like it was just embarrassing.”

After their abysmal season, San Jose State hired a new coaching staff starting with head coach Mike Macintyre, who was previously a defensive coordinator for the Duke Blue Devils. As recruiting went on, Smith noticed that the other freshman committing to San Jose State came from winning programs out of high school. After his visit to San Jose State and meeting the other incoming freshman Smith said it solidified things for him.

“Everything just felt like this is where I needed to be. I may not be guaranteed a starting spot, but it’s the opportunity to compete for one,” Smith said.

After graduating from Charter Oak High School in 2010, Smith and his freshman class created a special bond during their first summer together before they had even played a snap of football, and they vowed to change the losing culture in the locker room. This culture change was not an overnight process, but Smith continued to grind, and as a freshman he started for San Jose State at linebacker. During his freshman year, he and his fellow Spartans were immediately thrown into the fire when they played #1 ranked Alabama in their season opener. Alabama handily won the game 48–3, but this experience showed Smith that he could hold his own against the top recruits who went to the division I “football schools.”

The San Jose State Spartans finished 1–12 his freshman year, so Smith and his teammates realized they had an uphill battle to climb. However, Smith found success during his freshman campaign. He was awarded second team All-WAC and WAC freshman of the year in 2010. During his sophomore season his Spartans were tested once again in their season opener. They played the #7 ranked Stanford Cardinals and lost 57–3. The Spartans finished their season on a winning note beating their biggest rival Fresno State 27–24 in the Valley Rivalry game, and finished with a 5–7 record in 2011.

Smith while playing for San Jose State University

Smith was awarded second team All-WAC for a second time at the conclusion of his sophomore season. Once again in 2012 they faced the Cardinals in their season opener, but this game was much different than the game just one year before. Stanford did win, but by a slim margin of three points with a final score of 20–17. Smith’s team was improving and it showed against a ranked opponent, playing at Stanford’s stadium in a very hostile environment that contained thousands of screaming Stanford fans.

The Spartans won their next four games until losing to Utah State 49–27. Smith and his comrades would not taste defeat for the rest of the season finishing with a record of 11–2. After their successful regular season, the Spartans were rewarded with an opportunity to play in the annual Military Bowl. The game was set, San Jose State vs. Bowling Green, winner goes home on a high horse and loser goes home wishing they had a redo. Smith and his defense held Bowling Green to under 250 total yards and won the game 29–20.

“That was probably the funnest and happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” Smith said about the victory. “Being at the top with my guys. Just the atmosphere; we were like a family and football was so fun then, and we all played for each other.”

Smith was recognized by the NCAA after his junior season and was awarded first team All-WAC. In 2013, Smith’s senior year, he was voted team captain by the team that he started with in 2010 as freshman. His senior season, Smith led all defensive players in division I FBS schools in tackles and earned first team All-MAC after San Jose State switched divisions from WAC (Western Athletic Conference) to the MAC (Mountain West Conference). After all the accolades and awards Smith said his biggest honor was being voted team captain.

“That was a big accomplishment for me because I had always tried to be the leader, especially on the defense since my freshman year, so to be named captain of the whole team was a big accomplishment of mine.”

Smith and his football family finished their senior season 6–6, and in his final home game at San Jose State, Smith intercepted Derick Carr who was a second round pick in the 2014 draft. Smith and his Spartans beat their rival, Fresno State once again in the Valley Rivalry game 62–52. Smith graduated from San Jose State in three and half years with a bachelor’s of arts degree in communications, and now had his sights set on playing in the NFL.

The annual NFL combine is where the incoming rookies get to show off their athleticism. They run drills like the 40-yard dash, broad jumps and the NFL scouts have the opportunity to interview these players to see if they could be a good fit for their organization. Smith unfortunately was not invited to the combine so he would not have the luxury of introducing himself to the scouts and NFL head coaches. He instead trained at STARS training facilities in Southern California. Smith trained with future draft pick Paul Richardson of the Seattle Seahawks and fellow undrafted free-agent Terrance Garvin of the Pittsburg Steelers.

The pre-draft training for Smith was grueling because of the repetitions that went into training his body to replicate combine workouts. Throughout his life Smith has always tried to put in extra work.

“My mentality my whole life has been just do something extra because everybody is working, but how much more are you going to do than that next person? I would do extra every day whether it was lifts or some sprints. I kept grinding, and kept that chip on my shoulder that I didn’t really get an All-Star invite or no combine invite.” -Keith Smith

During the pre-draft process, multiple teams contacted Smith by phone and letter informing him they were interested in bringing him into their camp. His mother said it was an exciting time. “We thought he may get drafted because so many teams had shown interest in him,” she said.

On May 8, 2014, the annual NFL draft started with Jadeveon Clowney out of the University of South Carolina selected 1st overall by the Houston Texans. There were 223 rookies selected after the first pick was announced and none of them were Keith Smith from San Jose State University. In the middle of the seventh and final round of the draft, the Dallas Cowboys contacted Smith and mentioned they might pick him. What they really wanted was to sign him as an undrafted free agent. The Dallas Cowboys in 2013 had statistically the worst defense in the NFL, so once again Smith saw an opportunity to prove himself as an NFL linebacker.

Keith Smith, Dallas Cowboys

“It felt amazing. Once I was signed I was like this is all I could ask for. Just an opportunity, and what better way than to sign with the Cowboys, the biggest NFL organization in the world,” Smith said.

Smith was one of 90 players who went into the Cowboys training camp, and he knew only 53 players would make it on the final roster. Early in camp, Cowboys star linebacker Sean Lee, and arguably the their best defensive player, went down during practice after a torn ACL ending his season before even taking a snap. With the injury to Lee, Smith moved up the depth chart, and his small window at making the roster was opened a bit further because he had the opportunity to receive those much needed reps in practice to show his talents.

Throughout the preseason, Smith was able to showcase his abilities late in games and he survived the first cut that trimmed the 90 player roster to 75 players. Dallas’ final two preseason games, at the Miami Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium, and hosting the Denver Broncos, Smith showed he was a play maker in his coverage skills and defensive fits in the run game. He also revealed his potential to fly down the field on special teams, which is where most rookies find their niche on a team. At the conclusion of the preseason, Smith was waived by the Cowboys and was on the free-agent market for one day. After those 24-hours, Smith cleared waivers and was signed to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad. Practice squad players aren’t allowed to suit up on game day, but they practice with the team all season long developing their skills for the next season, or until given the opportunity to play on the 53 man active roster.

In week three vs. the St. Louise Rams, Smith, for the first time, was activated to the 53 man active roster. He played his first NFL snap on kickoff.

“It was crazy running down there full speed not knowing what to expect. It was so surreal like I was really doing this right now,” he said.

In the second half of the game, the score was close and the Rams were in the red zone when Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter went down with an injury. Smith was Carter’s backup, so he went from spectating on the sideline to live action in one play.

“ I’m not gonna lie, I was nervous as hell. It happened so quick. I was on the sideline listening to the defensive calls and Bruce goes down, and that was it. It was my time to go in. I ran up to my coach and he looked at me. I was like, ‘Am I in? am I in?’ and they yelled, ‘Yea! Yea! Go in!’”

As I was watching the game from home I could see the excitement in his eyes as he stepped on the field. Smith focused solely on his job and on his first series of defensive plays, showed his instincts and made a tackle near the goal line. Smith was able to get his mother a ticket only days before the game because he knew he would be activated to the roster, but he had no idea he would play on defense.

Smith said his mother has been his lucky charm because she also attended the NFL’s annual game in London Dallas Cowboys vs. Jacksonville Jaguars. Once again Keith played not only on special teams, but also played on defense and tallied up two tackles during his time on the field. Rookie players like Smith cannot squander any opportunity because the chances to present themselves are seldom.

“It’s real intense because you’re only out there one or two plays,” Smith said.

This intensity is unlike anything Smith experienced at San Jose State, because he didn’t play a down of special teams since he was invaluable to the team on defense. Special teams players sprint full speed down the field like heat seeking missiles with one objective in mind… destroy the opposing teams return man. He explained:

“At this level [NFL] the mental capacity is what separates the guys who make it and the guys who don’t because everybody is good and everybody is big, fast and strong, but if you make every play that you are supposed to make you’re gonna make it.”

Smith and the Dallas Cowboys finished the regular season strong winning their final four games by double digits margins, and Smith shined in the final two games. In week 16 the playoff bound Indianapolis Colts came into Dallas’ AT&T Stadium. If the Cowboys won they would be crowned they would be crowned NFC East divisions champions and would be awarded a playoff berth, their first since 2009. The Cowboys beat down the Colts winning 42–7, and Smith added three more tackles to his resume. The next week Smith and the Boys faced the arch rival Washington Redskins in the final game of the season, and the Cowboys continued their dominance imposing their will on their opponent winning 44–17. Smith showed his coaching staff, the Redskins and all of America his instincts to find the ball as he flew around the field colliding with Redskins players. In the fourth quarter of the game, Smith hammered the nail in the Redskins coffin as he punished their ball carrier jarring the ball loose causing a fumble, and a Cowboy player pounced on the ball creating the turnover. Smith unfortunately was not active for the Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys home playoff victory, or the playoff loss at historic Lambeau field in Green Bay. Now that the 2014 season is over and a new champion has been crowned, Smith along with every other NFL player will take some time to recuperate their bodies after a punishing season. They will begin the gruesome training for the 2015 season this Spring. His entire life Smith has never been the biggest, fastest, or strongest player on the field, but he has always dedicated his time to training in the gym and practice field, and has capitalized on the opportunities that have present themselves. His mother is proud of her son’s accomplishments playing in the NFL. “It’s incredible. It completely blows me away,” she said.

Smith isn’t completely satisfied with his career yet, but he is in good position to live out his dream of playing in the NFL.

“It’s been destined in my heart to play this game,” Smith said.

All photos courtesy of Keith Smith

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